While on the Lens sector in the midst of winter, Sgt. Frank S. Iriam had another lively experience after coming out of the bathhouse:
“I had a hot time with an undershirt that I got one day. Just before we came into the line, we were rushed to the baths and then went directly from there into the trenches. I had drawn a very tight-fitting under shirt of heavy wool at the bathing house lottery and it was binding me in the armpits. I marched about a mile with full equipment and began to perspire a bit. Talk about (coming to life), I’ll say that shirt did nothing else but. I thought my skin was on fire. The thing was literally alive and moving. I had to strip right in the communication trench and get rid of that shirt quick. I flung it as far as I could in the snow and went shirtless until the next bath day.” (Iriam, In The Trenches – 1914-1918, p. 187).
This week we continue the humourous adventures of battling lice on the Western Front as Sgt. Frank S. Iriam, a Canadian sniper in the 8th (90th Winnipeg Rifles) Battalion shares his experience with “lively” clothing:
“The baths were some institution. There was usually an old stationary boiler that had been patched and made to stand a few pounds pressure of steam… fitted with short branch pipes that had a tin can perforated with nail holes to serve as a spray. We would disrobe in one room, throw our underwear through a window to an attendant and pass on naked in Indian file into the spray from the tin cans. After a very short time there you would hear a yell from the Sgt. in charge of operations. Then you moved out and a new suit of underwear was thrown to you as you passed another window. You had to take pot luck on what you got. If you were tall and broad you were sure to get an outfit to fit a runt and vice-versa [sic]. Sometimes we were able to trade off ill-fitting garments with some small guy who had drawn a big suit in the lottery. These clothes were supposed to be free from lice or vermin but it was only a dream. The first dose of lice I got in France was on a new suit taken from a pile of stuff that had never been worn since coming from the factory. It had been stored and handled over the floors of these baths, in close contact with infected clothing until it was literally loaded for bear. You did not notice anything wrong until you got warm or started to perspire. Then things got lively and interesting all at once.”
(Iriam, In The Trenches – 1914-1918, p. 178).
Amidst the mud and misery of the frontline, a trip out of the line sometimes meant a bath and welcome change of uniform and underwear for the troops. But the process wasn’t quite as refreshing as it may sound. John Becker of the 75th (Mississauga) Battalion recounts his visit to the baths in the area of Gouy-Servins, France in June 1917:
“This particular bathhouse was a rough board building with a boiler fired by wood alongside. Inside we took off our clothes and threw underwear and socks in a heap at one end. The underwear was immediately grabbed by fatigue men before it walked off under its own power [infested by lice]. We passed into another room and under long pipes shooting streams of warm water. A sergeant-major called “Soap On.” We soaped for three minutes. “Soap Off” – we had to immediately rinse ourselves as in another minute the water was shut off. We passed on to the other end, wiped our louse bitten hides, got clean towels, fumigated underwear, and resumed our clothes. The underwear was whatever we were handed. Some of it had been used for a long time… It was supposed to be free from livestock [lice], but this didn’t take into account the babies that had laid their eggs in the seams of my trousers and tunic, and an hour later I was providing a dinner for those eggs and all their brothers and sisters.” (Becker, Silhouettes of the Great War, 84).